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The last few years have been good for the Nobel Prize in Literature: Poets Wislawa Szymborska and Seamus Heaney, dramatist Dario Fo, novelists José Saramago and, perhaps most deserving of all, Günter Grass are writers of the first importance in Western letters. Indeed, Heaney and Grass now are central to the canon. The 2000 literary laureate, Gao Xingjian, is another splendid choice. And if, as a Chinese émigré now living in Paris, he is essentially unknown in America, the publication of his novel Soul Mountain -- recently translated by Mabel Lee -- finally may dispel the embarrassing absurdities of '90s PC-chic recipients Kenzaburo Oe, Derek Walcott and the dreadful Toni Morrison.

Here is a novel of astonishing lyrical scope and narrative invention, tracing as it does an arc from the hospital where the protagonist/author learns he has miraculously escaped lung cancer to the ancient mountains of southern China and his search for meaning -- from a fragmented memory of childhood to a whole self retrieved from the dross of daily experience and the exotic tropes of private reverie in which life and death converge and drift apart as streams flowing to the ocean:

"I am aware at this moment that I am surrounded by a world of dead people ... I know that eating and drinking in the world of ghosts is symbolic, a ritual, and that living people cannot partake of it, but it suddenly occurs to me that just to be able to sit at the table and to listen would be a blessing ... I hear their departing footsteps rustling, even see the empty table they leave behind ... They say I can't go on like this ... They're plotting how to arrange my life ... I want to ask my mother if she had taken me on a boat in the Xiang River."

Xingjian's command of the transparencies in Eastern mysticism and the logical core of Western vision impute to his story a shimmering indeterminacy in which pronouns and perspective dissolve in a delicate polyphony of voices and the Bildungsroman tradition is reimagined as redemptive fairy-tale.

The translation conjures most of Xingjian's French inflections and, it seems, all of his Chinese drollery. Soul Mountain is an occasion to celebrate the achievement of a distinguished world voice and the continuing rehabilitation of the Nobel name.

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